2021ii8, Monday: The intellectual dishonesty of pushing buttons.

New rule: if you use a dog-whistle, I’ll stop reading. Fair enough? And a lovely rabbit-hole for word-loving geeks.

Short thought: By way of a tangential follow-on to the stuff on tools for thinking the other week, there’s been something else on my mind. And I recognise that I may be about to sound doctrinaire, narrow-minded, closed.

Which is ironic. Because that’s more or less the charge I’d level at the people to whom, I’ve decided, I’m not going to bother reading any more. 

That’s not entirely correct. I’m not shutting people out altogether because of something they write. I’m shutting the particular thing they’ve just written. 

Because I’m tired – so tired – of push-button words. You know: Woke. PC. Gammon. Karen. Cancel culture. TERF. And so many others.

(A point of clarification. This is about the use of the label. Not whether I agree or disagree with the underlying position it (mis)represents. As I hope I’ll make clear in a second.)

I think it started with “Remoaner”. Yes, I voted Remain. And I still think Brexit was a bad idea, done worse. (As with all things in UK politics, there’s a Yes Minister quote to fit the moment: “If you’re going to do this damn’ silly thing, don’t do it in this damn’ silly way.”) But among my friends are those who think otherwise, and we’ve come to understand and respect (and even care for) each other better because we started from assuming we were all acting in good faith. Still, every time I read a piece of writing with the word “Remoaner” in it, I just stopped reading. I thought: you’re pushing your readers’ buttons. You want them immediately to leap over the pros and cons, and move right on to an assumption of idiocy and bad faith on the other side. And that’s just wrong. 

And when I started thinking like that, I realised that so much of modern political discourse, on all parts of the political spectrum, was doing the same thing. In sports analogy terms, playing the person not the ball. Pushing the button, delivering a nice big dose of we’re-right-they’re-wrong dopamine, rather than actually trying to make the case. It’s not dog-whistling, because it’s not even bothering to hide in plain sight. No; it’s waving other views aside. Apply label, turn off brain, stop listening, assume the worst. 

In a way, it’s akin to what I’ve long regarded as the ultimate intellectual dishonesty: the straw-man fallacy. Even those not familiar with the term will recognise it straight away: the (deliberate) misrepresentation of someone else’s view so it’s easier to (ostensibly) refute. A classic example: we’re debating the notion of a just war. I say: I have an ethical problem with violence . You say: “So you’d be happy to watch your family get killed and do nothing about it.” You’ve taken my position to an absurd extreme, so as to make a case against something I’ve never said and don’t think. (It’s only a couple of years ago that I learned of the opposite, steel-manning. Which I love. As a barrister, it’s the key to winning a case: construct the best possible version of the other side’s argument first, and only then find a way of beating it. When I lose a case, it’s often because – on reflection afterwards – I realise I didn’t do that as well as I should have.)

Labelling someone as “woke”, for example (or, a few years ago, an SJW; before that, PC), is similar. You freight their position with a bunch of assumptions that you know “your” side will recognise and abhor. Then you go straight on to argue against that caricature rather than against reality. It’s a fundamentally dishonest way of doing things, whether you mean it that way or not. It short-circuits genuine thought and engagement, in favour of scoring points and pointing fingers. And whether it’s from the right, the left or somewhere in between, it’s abhorrent.

So that’s my rule. When I encounter a push-button word, I stop reading. 

I know it’ll mean I don’t read some things that perhaps I should. But attention is a very limited resource, for us all. And if you’re going to waste mine (and others’) by pushing buttons instead of engaging brains, I can’t be bothered with you. I’m going to turn the page. Close the tab. Move on. And read someone I disagree with who’s got more integrity.

Someone is right on the internet: Geeks like words. It’s part of who we are, on the whole. We have whole languages sometimes (conlangs – love ‘em). But even when we don’t, any fandom has words, phrases, which carry in their etymology histories of how our genres have evolved that we’re probably not aware of in the slightest. 

Which is where the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction comes in. Find a word or phrase. Jump drive. Nanobot. Sentient. And trace it through writings and media over the past 70 years or more. It’s a lovely rabbit-hole. Enjoy.

(If you’d like to read more like this, and would prefer it simply landing in your inbox three or so times a week, please go ahead and subscribe at https://remoteaccessbar.substack.com/.)

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